Ahead of the impending launch of Forza Motorsport 4 on Xbox 360, I spoke to its Game Director, Dan Greenawalt – who told me all we need to know about developer Turn 10′s latest racer, philosophy that continues to shape the series, and how Forza Motorsport 4 will “transform the racing genre.”
You only need to spend a few minutes in the company of Forza Motorsport 4 Game Director, Dan Greenawalt to realise how much the man loves cars.
Prior to E3 we hung out with him at Turn 10 Studio, where he talked about nearly everything there is to know about Forza Motorsport 4, the passion that drives the studio to make the best racing game possible, the brief history of the series and a sneak peek at some of the new features in the game.
“Obviously I’m a bit of a car freak, and a lot of people here are deeper into cars than others, but I would argue that everybody loves cars. They have an emotional impact on people.”
Dan gives the example of a passer-by lusting after the plush sports car they’ve just seen roar past on the street – that in ‘real life’ barring a lottery win – they wouldn’t dream of being able to own:
“When they do see a car like this it hits them. They say ‘Oh my god that guy riding that car, he spent too much money it, that’s just silly, that’s a waste of time.’ “Or maybe they say ‘Wow look at that car – it’s beautiful. It’s incredible. The engine sounds amazing.’ “Either way they are polarising, they speak to people, they get you excited.”
Or like the first car you ever owned. The one that, no matter how much trouble it gave, you always fondly remembered.
“This is my first car” [Greenawalt says, pointing to a slide of his 1973 Toyota Corolla]. Your first car is your first love. It’s also a compromise. It’s not the car you wanted. It’s the car you could afford. It’s the car you got from your brother. It’s the car that the guy down the street was able to sell to you for $250.
“Racing is actually the smallest component of the game. It’s about community, and bringing people together”
“But for the next few years you start to fall in love with this car, you start to realise what was so great about this car. It was your key to freedom. It was the only time that you can be away from your family. It’s the way that you can see open roads, the way you can go visit other places and visit your friends. And that attachment. That car becomes part of your life, it becomes who you are.”
More than racing, it’s “car passion” that Greenawalt says Forza 4 is all about. It’s a strange admission, but one that Greenawalt believes makes Forza Motorsport stand out from the competition, by attempting to make players fall in love with cars.
“For me this is what Forza Motorsport’s all about. It’s about the cars that matter to you. It’s not just about the supercars.
“Racing is actually the smallest component of the game. It’s about community, and bringing people together. We don’t want you to put the car down. We don’t want you to unlock the Ferrari and forget your GTI. We want you to be able to upgrade that GTI and go racing, paint it and fall in love with it the same way you did with your very first car.
“That’s affected our vision from the very beginning. While business-wise, this was about the Xbox, and this was about owning racing. From a team perspective this is about turning gamers into car lovers, and car lovers into gamers.”
It’s a vision that started in 2005, with the release of Forza Motorsport 1, and has paid huge dividends to cement the studio as arguably the premier racing game house.
“Forza Motorsport 1 came out in 2005. But for us as a team it was about developing a culture, developing a team. We slept the game, we worked long hours, we thought. We tried to figure out what we were about, what was our vision, who are we,” Greenawalt says.
“The best looking game on Xbox”
“Forza Motorsport 2 was about building credibility. It wasn’t just about the team now. It was about simulation: 60 frames-per-second, amazing graphics, cutting edge physics, new community features, bringing people together.”
Two years ago he himself took to the E3 2009 stage to deliver a confident pitch to hail Forza 3 as the definitive racer. This, at a time when rival Polyphony Digital were still yet to release Gran Turismo 5.
“At E3 2009 we got up in front of the world and said [Forza Motorsport 3 will be] “the definitive racing game of this generation.” Some people were like “Wow you yankees were all chest-pounding, what’s going on with that” and for us it was a challenge.”
The bravado proved justified. Forza Motorsport 3 sits pretty on score aggregate site Metacritic with a score of 92 out of 100. Greenawalt now hopes to transform the genre, as he talks about graphics, authenticity, innovation and community as the pillars of Forza 4. “These four ideas have driven the game that we’ve made,” he wants to make Forza 4 “the best looking game on Xbox.”
“Innovation has been a hallmark of Forza Motorsport. Livery, Auction House, Storefront, the way we bring communities together.” Again, Greenawalt says, Forza Motorsport isn’t just about the racing.
“We have people trading things, trading paint jobs and tunes. We have people not only racing. We have people playing cat and mouse. They’re playing tag. They’re playing these playground games. And not only is it a lot of people. It’s nearly 50/50 in our community. These people that are not the hardcore racers, but they just wanna mess around with cars.” Some don’t race at all.
“All they do is paint. They paint, they trade, and they broker cars. They’re a very important part of our community because they’re stoking the car passion of other people. It’s how these groups interact. How a painter interacts with a tuner, [how a] tuner interacts with a racer to make a very vibrant community,” the game director explains.
Forza 4 will feature voiceover from non other than Top Gear legend and host Jeremy Clarkson, along with a number of Top Gear-flavoured race obstacles. More than popularity by association, Top Gear and Forza 4 combined is about enhancing the Forza culture, with a little help from Clarkson and co, Greenawalt says.
“Top Gear for us is not just about us getting some licensing and getting some content. Top Gear is about humour and bringing people together. It’s really about getting friends together and screwing around with cars. Sure, they were new cars, but it’s mostly about the humour and the culture of cars”
The authenticity Greenawalt earlier spoke of comes from the little details – even if it means going to absurd lengths, such as spending days measuring car parts.
“We don’t trust the manufacturers. They’re not in the business of telling us the truth about their cars. They tell us the horsepower this way, the marketing guys tell us this car can pull so many G’s. Bull*hit. It’s just not true. We end up having to dyno cars, we take the cars apart, we call the manufacturers to actually send the parts to get real gear ratios from, from many different manufacturers so that we make sure we have the right input all the time.”
“We don’t trust the manufacturers. They’re not in the business of telling us the truth about their cars. Bull*hit.”
A partnership with tyre-maker Pirelli gives the team access to handling data, direct from the tyre manufacturer. “We worked with Pirelli to get everything, and put that directly into the game.”
All that is put into cars from 80 manufacturers, which Greenawalt claims is “more than you’ll find in any other game.” Listening to the man speak, we couldn’t help but think this approach sounded like the total opposite to the here’s-all-the-cars-you-could-ever-wish-for approach Polyphony Digital appeared to take with the obvious, but relevant example of Gran Turismo 5. Instead, Greenawalt hopes players will tinker with the cars to make them play like different models.
“I don’t expect you to collect 500 cars in your garage. I think you’re going to have about five or 20 cars. Cars that you pull apart. They’re all going to be completely different.”
However, innovation is what we’re told will set Forza Motorsport 4 apart from the competition. Greenawalt sees Microsoft’s motion sensing Kinect Xbox 360 accessory as key part in the studio’s ambition to make more people love cars and racing, describing Kinect as “the new frontier” to encourage more people, young and old to play and get excited about driving.
“When I look at my kids, they don’t know how to drive, they don’t know about simulation, but they sure as hell like to smash cars up. They like to open cars, they like to run around and jump in a truck and have fun. Kinect is such a natural interface that allows us to go into that broader audience with kids – people that are not into simulation, and get them excited about cars in a new way.”
Kinect-specific features include an interactive garage, letting players physically walk around a car, examining its body parts, engine and dashboard by pointing at them on screen. It’s like being able to push past the velvet rope at a car convention.
“We see this as the future of automotive and that’s affected our design aesthetic as well. This kind of UI we call an Ironman looking HUD, it’s very futuristic, you see it throughout the game. This is the future of how you’re going to interact with cars.”
In a first for the series, Forza Motorsport 4 will feature Kinect-enabled head-tracking. The camera inside Kinect tracks the left and right movements of players heads to give the illusion of being in the driving seat.”We actually watched how players drive. And the way they drive when they get excited is they tend to move their had a little bit when they get stressed out. We just reeled that in and have it look into the corner for you.”
A new feature called Rivals Mode lets you challenge and take on people in the leaderboards, as well as your friends. Defeating them nets players a bounty. The best players can always look out for those sitting atop the leaderboards in order to challenge their time. Even novice players will be able to challenge the times of those around them, to slowly work their way up the rankings.
“It’s kinda like headhunting – wanted dead or alive,” Greenawalt says. You can take your friends on, you beat them on one of these time trials, and these are also not just about racing. You collect money for that, and then they get a challenge. ‘Hey, so and so just beat your time, go beat it back. Take your money back from them.’ This becomes an area that just seeds the community asynchronously.”
And then you’ve got 16-player multiplayer. One would think it is a feature designed specifically for the hardcore racer – a winner takes all mass race-to-the-death-no-holds-barred experience with only one winner, but Greenawalt insists it will be the biggest area for the casuals, and those that like to team up.
“You can imagine when we have these larger fields, it’s more co-operative, team-based, it’s just fun to play. It’s much, much better. And of course yes, we also have racing. But if truth be told, with 16 players there are a lot of losers. So, you gotta take the good with the bad there.
“I think when you start getting into the more interesting game types: multi-class racing, team-based racing that 16-players really comes into its own. If you just judge it on straight-up racing, one against 15 it’s OK, but the real magic comes with the rest of the gameplay.”
We came away from our time at Turn 10 Studios with the impression that the team has thought of everything. “We are very proud of our game and we worked very hard on this,” Forza’s head-honcho proudly says. Will it be enough to “transform the genre”? It just might.